Belgium: 25,000 demonstrate in solidarity with striking car workers

Three years after massive job cuts at Ford-Genk (the loss of 3,000) and nine years after the closure of Renault-Vilvoorde, the announcement of Volkswagen that it will cut 4,000 jobs in its plant in Vorst (Brussels) was a shock for many workers in Belgium.

25,000 demonstrate in solidarity with striking car workers

On Saturday, 2 December, 25,000 demonstrated in Brussels in solidarity with workers threatened with losing their jobs at VW or at suppliers of VW. The VW workforce (over 5,000) went on strike on 17 November, following news of the threatened closure of their car plant.

In the days before the demonstration, the VW-management and the government did all they could to bring “positive” news to the media. Management announced the possibility of constructing a new model in Vorst, the ‘Audi A1’, from 2009 onwards. Prime Minister Verhofstadt confirmed this news, and said this would reduce the numbers who would be sacked down to 2,200. The government also announced that there were already some 1,500 job vacancies from companies that want experienced VW-workers.

All those ‘measures’ remain unsure and are not a solution for the workers. VW said it is prepared to construct the Audi A1, in Vorst, on the condition that the government reduces the company’s wage costs, by 20% (through tax breaks) and offers a solution for the VW-workers until 2009, when VW claims the new car will go into production (the present production of the Golf would only continue until 2007).

Unemployed remains high in Belgium, and will continue to do so, even if experienced VW workers can find the other jobs the government claims await them. VW workers who find new jobs would get less pay and forced to be more ‘flexible’. 81% of former Ford-workers who found a new job after the job cuts in 2003 now have lower wages. While Ford reduced its workforce by 3,000 in 2003, it has since employed 1,297 temporary contract workers, on worse conditions.

VW has two options for its plant in Vorst: a total closure or keeping the factory open but with far worse working conditions and wages. The management and Belgian government’s announcement of the production of the Audi A1, from 2009, points towards the second option. But, if so, workers, at VW, further, would have to pay a very high price; a big reduction in their salaries would be used in other plants to force down wages.

‘Committee for Different Politics’

The “good news” in the media, just before the national demonstration, made it necessary to review the turnout. While at the beginning of last week, the expected figure of 50,000 was given, the actual turnout was much lower, at 25,000, according to the unions (the police only counted 15,000). However, this still is quite good for a demo on a Saturday morning.

During the demonstration, there was a feeling of solidarity, but also questions on the next steps that need to be taken. The trade union leadership offered no way forward. This could open the way to divisions among the VW-workers who were paid by VW until the demonstration but who now are dependant on their strike fund.

LSP/MAS (the CWI in Belgium) participated in the demonstration, distributing a leaflet calling for a 24-hour general strike across the whole country. We explained that the demo should not be a ‘funeral march’, but the beginning of a plan of action to build the solidarity. This appeal to broaden solidarity got a warm response. As well as handing out our leaflets, we sold 500 copies of our paper, and raised 943 euro for the fighting fund.

LSP/MAS members also participated as part of the broad CAP (‘Committee for Different Politics’); an initiative aiming to build a new workers’ party. The CAP was very visible on the demo and its supporters handed out 10,000 leaflets (in Dutch and French). CAP supporters brought along a ‘solidarity bus’, which was on the picket lines in Vorst since the beginning of the workers’ industrial action. Former MP, Jef Sleeckx and Lode Van Outrive, and former general secretary of the social democratic union federation, Georges Debunne, were at the solidarity bus to discuss with demonstrators. Some 40 workers joined the CAP on the spot.

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December 2006